Commander James Harmon Ward was the first Union naval officer to be killed in action during the Civil War. He was also one of the first students ever to attend Alden Partridge’s American Literary, Scientific, and Military Academy.
According to handwritten records in the Norwich University Archives, James Ward enrolled in the Academy in September of 1821, the 116th young man to sign on as one of Partridge’s cadets. A native of Hartford, Conn., he completed his studies two years later, in 1823, and immediately joined the United States Navy as a 17-year-old midshipman.
As Ward rose through the ranks of the peacetime Navy, his experiences as a cadet under the excellent tutelage of Captain Partridge never left him. In the 1840s he was a vocal advocate of the need for a federal naval academy. When the U.S. Naval Academy was established in Annapolis in 1845, Ward joined its first group of faculty, following in Partridge’s footsteps as a military educator.
When the Civil War broke out, it became clear that Washington, D.C., situated on the border between Union and Confederate states, would need a strong defense. In April 1861, Ward sent a proposal to Secretary of the Navy and fellow Norwich alumnus Gideon Welles to form the Potomac Flotilla to defend the nation’s capital. His plan was approved. After brief months of patrolling and engaging with Confederate ships and raiding parties, Commander Ward was killed by musket fire in the Battle of Mathias Point, Va. on June 27, 1861.
Commander Ward’s outstanding contributions to the nation’s defense were recognized immediately. When the Union forces constructed a fort later in 1861 to defend Alexandria, Va., they named it Fort Ward in his honor. He is also the namesake of the U.S.S. Ward, the destroyer that fired the first American shot in World War II.
Commander James Ward was also featured in 200 Things #16, “Norwich University and the Naval Service.” You can learn more about his life and accomplishments, and about the American Literary, Scientific and Military Academy at the time he attended, by visiting or contacting the Norwich University Archives.